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Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soccer during Europe’s Darkest Hour

I am not Dutch, but when I was six years old my Dad took a job in the small town of Leiden, and so I spent most of my school years in the Netherlands. I grew up on Dutch Resistance stories. Even in the '70s and '80s, World War II seemed to be all around us. I played soccer and cricket with a gangling, friendly boy whose grandfather, proprietor of a cigar shop, had run the local Resistance. At school I was fed the prevalent Dutch myth of the day: that the Dutch had been "goed" (good) in the war. When they weren't sending Germans the wrong way to the station, they were bringing food to hidden Jews. These were the stories I imbibed until I left the country in 1986.

In adulthood I began writing a book about the Dutch war — a book that I first completed in Dutch in 2000 and later rewrote in English for a British publisher in 2003, and which is now being published in the U.S. for the first time as Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soccer during Europe's Darkest Hour. By the time I began writing, I had come to realize (as had most Dutch people) that the war myths that I had been raised on were not quite right. Not every Dutch person had been in the Resistance. To the contrary: about 75 percent of Dutch Jews were killed in the war, the highest proportion outside of Polandabout 75 percent of Dutch Jews were killed in the war, the highest proportion outside of Poland.

What I wanted to capture in the book was daily life under the occupation. How had ordinary Dutch people experienced those years? Partly for that reason, I wrote about the war through the prism of another Dutch national obsession: soccer. In a country where joining your local soccer club was as much a male rite of passage as anything to do with girls, I figured that soccer would be the place where the war met ordinary life. Having found my topic, the problem then became: How to unearth it? Researching this book was more difficult and harrowing than anything else I have ever written. I never want to repeat the experience, but it gave me new insights into the Holocaust and into the country I had thought I knew well.

First I knocked on the door of the Dutch soccer federation, the KNVB. But its documents for the period of 1940 to 1945 seemed to have disappeared. I went to Ajax Amsterdam, the country's premier club, supported by many of the Amsterdam Jews who perished in the death camps, and met its charming octogenarian archivist Wim Schoevaart, a club member since 1930. (Today Schoevaart is a nonagenarian and still going strong.) I told him I was writing a book about Dutch soccer, Ajax, the Jews, and the war, and he kindly told me I was wasting my time because I would soon find out there wasn't enough to say. One of Ajax's club directors barred me from seeing the club's archive on the grounds that there was "nothing interesting in it for you."

I later came to understand that Ajax's wartime history was not so much evil as complicated and uncomfortable. Some club members, like Schoevaart's own uncle, had hidden Jews in the war; a few others had been monsters, including a guy who had been a concentration-camp guard known for beating prisoners with a bull pizzle; and most Ajax members, like most Dutch people in the war, had been neither goed nor fout ("wrong," in the Dutch phrase) but had merely tried to get through the war with as little personal damage as possible, and had enjoyed their soccer along the way.

Barred from the club's archives, I went looking for wartime survivors willing to talk. Some were desperate to talk. Bennie Muller, half-Jewish former captain of Ajax and Holland, grabbed his head and rubbed his eyes when I walked into his Amsterdam cigar shop and asked for an interview. "Must we do this?" he asked. "Then everything will be dredged up again." As a child in Amsterdam's Jewish quarter, Muller had spent most of the war in fear that the Germans would take his mother; they didn't, but they killed most of her family. He led me into the back room of his shop, gave me a seat "for two minutes," and then talked for an hour and a half.

In hindsight, the months in 1999 and 2000 that I spent in Amsterdam doing my research were about the last time that anyone could have found significant numbers of Holocaust survivors still able to speak. I got to know a man named Meijer Stad, who had survived being executed in Buchenwald in 1945, and Leon Greenman, the only English Jew sent to Auschwitz. There he had become friends with an American Jew and former Ajax player named Eddy Hamel, who hadn't survived.

Seeing Dutch Jewish families up close, I learned that more than 50 years after the war, they were still destroyed by it. Many people I saw were crazy. The families themselves were often patched up: you returned from the camps to find that your whole family had been murdered, and so you began calling an old Jewish survivor around your grandfather's age "grandpa," invented new cousins and aunts, and somehow struggled on. For these survivors, there could never be any coming to terms, no "closure."For these survivors, there could never be any coming to terms, no "closure." Many of the men became workaholics as a way to avoid thinking about what had happened. After I had interviewed them, some began treating me as their therapist. They had gone decades barely talking to anyone about the war. Once they had begun talking about it to me, they often didn't want to stop, even when I desperately wanted to.

In the end I did find an excellent archive. Rummaging around in Rotterdam's municipal archive one day, I chanced upon the files of the Sparta Rotterdam club. Not a scrap of paper at Sparta seemed to have been thrown away or edited or retold in a different way decades later. The neat files contained the oddest documents: every letter Sparta sent in the war (including the polite notifications to Jewish members in 1941 that regrettably they had been expelled), as well as club journals and painstakingly typed minutes of anguished board meetings. I even found a cardboard sign, with the pinholes still in it, which, when unfolded, revealed the text: "FORBIDDEN FOR JEWS." Presumably it had hung at the club's premises during the occupation. Sparta's archive gave a sense of daily life in organized Holland like nothing else I encountered.

My book ended up spanning far beyond the Netherlands. I went to Germany, Britain, France, and Switzerland to trace their stories of soccer in the war. The conflict takes on a whole new dimension when you know, for instance, that on June 22, 1941, the day Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the decisive act of the entire war, 90,000 spectators watched the German league final in Berlin. What were they thinking of?

I am glad I wrote the book. Nobody could write it now. As the historian Christopher Browning wrote recently, we are reaching "the end of the survivor era." Almost all the shattered old men I interviewed twelve years ago are dead now. Recording their stories before it was too late felt like a duty. But I couldn't do anything like it again. In fact, since finishing the book, I have found myself almost unable to read or hear anything about the Holocaust. Even though my book takes place almost entirely outside the camps, and often on soccer fields, I only had the strength to immerse myself in the topic once in my life. I hope readers will have the courage to read it and will learn more about the ordinariness as well as the horror of life in occupied Western Europe.

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Simon Kuper is one of the world's leading writers on soccer. The winner of the William Hill Prize for Sports Book of the Year in England, Kuper writes a weekly column for the Financial Times.

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